I’ve lived more places than most. North Carolina is the one I’ve kept coming back to by choice.
I’ll always have a love-hate relationship with Florida. My grandparents lived there throughout my childhood, making for many long drives and green Christmases. I still haven’t seen enough of the Keys, or St. Augustine, or even Disney, which is sure to beckon to my daughter sooner or later. I’d love to see my Tampa friends again sometime.
But here we are, after a more or less national search. I’m glad this is where we ended up. And here is why.
(Once again, a disclaimer: I’m leaving out the obvious. Family. Jim’s new job. I’d be grateful for these things no matter where we found them.)
5. Fall. Florida has winter, contrary to popular belief. It gets cold, even unpleasantly so, and the buildings aren’t insulated well enough to withstand it. Only hardcore snowbirds dare go to the beach. In Gainesville, the sky would turn orange on some winter nights, making me think snow was possible. (It did happen once during my time at TBO. Some parts of our coverage area saw enough snow for people to write incredulous messages on their windshields.) And of course, Florida has summer – a nearly endless season when the weather ranges from perfectly welcoming to punishingly hot.
What Florida lacks are the seasons in between. And I’ve missed them, especially fall. So this year, I’m looking forward to turtlenecks and jackets, turning leaves and harvest tones.
4. Forests. I don’t want to discount Florida’s landscapes. There’s a reason people travel from around the world to sit on a Florida beach and watch the waves crash under the setting (or rising, depending on which coast) sun. I love the untamed Everglades, and the inland pools and rivers where wildlife comes close enough to nibble your toes. I have video of my husband actually frolicking with a dolphin on the shore of an uninhabited island.
But sometimes it seems like you have to put on blinders to enjoy Florida’s beauty. You have to drive past a lot of ugly sprawl to get to the best view. Certain parts of Tampa are almost entirely paved. Here in North Carolina, we aren’t immune to sprawl, but we seem to have left at least a few trees standing to break up the concrete, even on the major roads. Climate makes North Carolina trees grow taller than those in Florida, but people’s choices allow them to grow at all.
3. Basketball. This is too easy. This is what everyone knows about North Carolina. Why, oh why, do people in hot states like Florida and Louisiana go nuts for football? They have to encase the players in those air-conditioning tents just to ensure their survival. When you go to the football stadium, there’s supposed to be a chill in the air. The spectators of the Deep South would be much better off getting into basketball, played in climate-controlled arenas, during a time of year when there aren’t nearly as many other activities competing for your time. Plus, basketball is a far less dangerous pursuit for young kids. I’m glad to be back where basketball rules the conversation – and where more people understand the importance of hating Duke.
2. Fewer weirdos. There is no better way to say it than this old chestnut: “Florida: A sunny place for shady people.” I hate to say it, or even think it, in front of my many steadfastly Floridian friends who live productive lives and raise happy families amidst all the weirdness, but it’s true. I’ll admit that, as a journalist, the amount of weird news I encounter daily at work has made me more aware of the underbelly of wherever I happen to be living at the time. Florida’s underbelly is more exposed than most, and you can see it in everything from architecture to politics. Many have tried to explain it, a few have made a living off of it, but the Crews family doesn’t have to live with it anymore.
The crimes that TV dramas are made of – child abductions, serial murders – are more frequent and twisted than population alone can account for. In Tampa, what appeared to be a welcome reduction in street crime turned out to be due to former drug dealers turning to tax fraud as an alternate source of income. What seems to be a doctor’s office could just as likely be a pill mill. (Read those links – they are great examples of work by my former colleagues.) Decent places, like my grandparents’ Port St. Lucie neighborhood, go to seed with no warning. (A couple years after they left, home values rocketed up beyond belief, which just brings me to No. 1 on this list. Chalk it up to transience, escapism, even the weather – the arc of Florida simply bends toward freakishness.
1. Moderation. Being middle-of-the-road is unfashionable these days, particularly in politics. But it’s hard to deny the benefits of moderation when it comes to life in general.
Florida is a land of extremes. The economy goes through booms and busts, both of them much more intense than in other parts of the country. When I moved to Tampa, I had a hard time finding a haircut for less than $70, all the houses for sale were either serious fixer-uppers or “luxurious cityhomes,” and every other car was a Hummer limo. We left behind a landscape of foreclosed houses and vacant storefronts. My employer, which once sent reporters to the Olympics, had been through eight rounds of layoffs. It had been years since they even provided disposable coffee cups. Our neighbors in West Tampa were some of the best we’ll ever have, but the attempt at revitalizing the neighborhood suffered a devastating blow in the real-estate bubble.
Despite recent trends, I don’t think this steep decline can be entirely attributed to the national economy or the plight of journalism. No, it’s Florida. From the heights of a Florida boom, no one seems to remember the bad times. And vice versa. People take care of their own, as best as they can, but neither average folks nor policymakers make the kind of lasting changes that could make the next up-or-downswing less jarring. If Jim, who according to many sources has one of the best careers possible in this day and age, couldn’t find stability in Florida, who can?
Come to think of it, I think this entire top-5 list could be condensed into No. 1. (OK, maybe not basketball, especially considering the country’s growing disillusionment with college sports in general.) Moderation, balance, variety. My home state has a long history and an eye on the future, and when things get rough, people don’t just bail. We’re here, I’m back, and we plan to make the best of it.